Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Congo Thing

[Sorry for the relatively long hiatus... it's what happens in Blogistan, so I've heard...]

I've been reading a book I received as a door prize at an event in Santa Fe a few weeks ago, a book called "Captive in the Congo, A Consul's Return to the Heart of Darkness" by Michael P. E. Hoyt.

I haven't gotten very far into it, but so far it's a pretty good read as these things go, though I take strenuous issue with the notion that the United States Government is/was somehow innocent or blameless for what happened to the Congo during and after the Belgian colonial period.

The author was appointed US Consul in Stanleyville in 1964, and within a couple of weeks, he was taken hostage along with about 250 others -- Americans, Belgians and some other Westerners and Congolese -- by rebels, "Lumumbist Rebels" they are called, who captured and held Stanleyville until the hostages were rescued by a joint Belgian/American/Cuban exile quasi-military operation that routed the rebels at least temporarily.

Who remembers any of this? I do, strangely, at least I recall parts of it, some of the names of the players and the places where some of the events of the period took place. It was on all the news at the time, but there was something fascinating about the Congolese independence movement, Patrice Lumumba, the strategic jockeying for power over Darkest Africa between the Soviet Union and the "West," the appalling behavior of the Belgians, the disgusting behavior of Americans. It was all amazing and revelatory to me at a time when I was barely conscious of politics and world events at all.

I was only 12 when the Belgian Congo achieved a very fragile independence, and only 16 when the events in this book took place.

Yet what happened -- or at least what was reported -- has left an impression on me to this day.

I wrote about Lumumba and the Belgians and the coup that overthrew him and his subsequent assassination almost five years ago now. At the time it happened, it was shocking to me, but it was being purveyed as simply the "tragic way of the world," oh well, what can you do, It's Africa, and all that.

The fact that Lumumba was an African nationalist who saw the future of the Congo and Africa in general as a future freed from Euro-American colonial oppression and exploitation was what got him overthrown and killed. The Belgians had no qualms whatever about doing what wet work was necessary to maintain control over their captured territory even if a nominal independence was granted under pressure. Exterminating a pest like Lumumba was all in a day's work for the Belgian mercenaries and their allies who continued to infest the Congo long after "independence."

Americans were part of the neocolonial pattern in Africa even as all the countries of the continent were nominally freed from their colonial overlords. They would all become economic vassals of their former colonial masters or of the transnational corporate interests fostered by the United States. There would be no alternative.

And whatever ruin was brought in the wake of this new -- but not so new at all -- order would be the problems of the Natives, not of the West or the Powers the West represented.

Natives continued to struggle for freedom from neocolonialism in the Congo and elsewhere in Africa, and Hoyt makes abundantly clear what the Official Line was about that: the Rebels were savages with little or no conception of the higher purposes for which the United States and the West were "helping" in Africa; they relied on magic to achieve incoherent ends; they brutalized and killed with bloody abandon; they could not be reasoned with; they could only be met with force and crushed.

And so it would be.

I've noticed a through line of madness that's built in to the framework of the diplomatic service of which Hoyt was a part and from which he retired (like many others of his ilk have) to Santa Fe. Madness is the word I use because of the consistency of error in American foreign policy, error which literally cannot be corrected. It is built in, part of the DNA of the Foreign Service, the CIA, and all the other "helping" agencies that go to make up the Foreign Service.

Hoyt, like so many of his peers, has no conception of the policy errors he's implementing. The institutionalization of error and the inability to do anything to correct it is one of the fundamentals of American government(s) and policy, as I found out in my eleven years in the federal service.

In the Congo, the errors compound and continue. Things may get slightly better or worse at any given time, but the underlying premise of American policy in the Congo, in Africa, and in most places around the world is simply wrong. And there is no earthly way to fix it.

Thus all the nationalist and nativist uprisings we witness. People will not put up with the kinds of indignities, injustices, exploitations and worse that come with American-style or any other style of neocolonialism without resistance. The use of force to put down the rebellions ultimately leads to more and more and more of them, until inevitably the system that neocolonialism supports collapses.

The horrors that people go through in the lead-up to the collapse are unnecessary and yet somehow seem inevitable so long as colonialism and neo-colonialism is in power and able to assert power over weaker interests.

We see what a mess so much of Africa is to this day as its neocolonial exploitation continues apace. We see the rebellions of people who understand exactly what's been happening and want it stopped. We see the consistency of error in American foreign policy with regard to Africa.

This book, despite my disagreement with the premise of American exceptionalism and innocence, helps set the stage for the perpetuation of errors to come.

I am more and more convinced that changing it requires much more than an election or two...

Heart of Darkness indeed.

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